I’ve just come from a remarkable event. This evening at Nyack Library, a documentary film by Director Tina Traster made its debut before a packed room of enthusiastic history buffs, both professional and casual. The film is appropriately and succinctly titled “THIS HOUSE MATTERS”.
An important film for preservationists everywhere, it features Nyack’s own John Green House, and the John Green House Preservation Coalition extensively, while also highlighting other Rockland County historic structures recently lost to the wrecking ball, others in peril of destruction, and those fortunate enough – like the Green House – to have found a respite from oblivion.
Traster’s engaging and instructive film was prompted among other things by the loss of a Historical Treasure. See, you might not know that the historically significant “Lent House” in Orangeburg – built in 1752 -was completely demolished last year on the weekend of Easter with almost no fanfare. The home was built by a Revolutionary War veteran and one of the signers of the Orangetown Resolutions (discussed in its own post on this blog). Though some minor and ultimately ineffective attempts were made to save the structure, nothing materialized and the financially cash-strapped owner (with some mild regret) allowed the beautiful Dutch Sandstone Colonial to be bulldozed.
As a Realtor, I understand better than most the rights of property ownership and the amount of an individuals financial wealth that is tied up in any property owned. I could not blame the owner though it pains me to say so. As a Historian, this was a Crime Against History, and truly, I cried when I came upon the ruins of the structure unexpectedly last Spring. Full disclosure, as Village Historian I do appear in the film both in interviews, and some candid discussions. The loss of the Lent House spurred local preservationists to action to prevent this from happening to other important structures. One of them was Nyack’s own John Green House – contrary to popular belief not the oldest house in the village, but the second oldest – it is however the oldest stone structure currently standing in the Village of Nyack, but the home of a man extremely important to the history of Nyack, Rockland County and for that matter, the entire Hudson Valley.
SO WHO WAS THIS JOHN GREEN?
John Green was an merchant, entrepreneur, speculator and developer in Nyack in the early 1800s. He arrived in Nyack shortly after the turn of the 19th Century from New York City where a fire had cost him his business and all of his belongings. He began work here as a common laborer and eventually saved enough to open the area’s first lumber yard. By 1812 he had amassed enough to become one of the original founders of The First Methodist-Episcopal Church of Nyack. Built in 1812-1813 of the same Dutch Sandstone the John Green House would use in its construction, we now know it as the Old Stone Church, Upper Nyack’s oldest structure.
Using similar materials – reddish brown sandstone from the quarries in Nyack and Grandview, Green built his own three story home on lower Main Street, completing it in 1819. This was one of the last, if not the last, Gambrel-roofed Dutch Sandstone homes built in Rockland County in a style that was very specific to one place in the world, the lower Hudson Valley Communities in what are now Rockland and Bergen Counties. This particular style are large solid homes, with brown rough cut sandstone walls as much as 27 inches thick, and with a Gambrel for a roof (that’s a roof, much like a barns that is shallow peaked at the top and on each side takes an abrupt sharper downward slant halfway between the peak of the roof and the roof line. Further distinguishing OUR Dutch Sandstone Colonials was the “flare” at the edges of the roof where today you would find rain gutters. This brilliant innovation was significantly better than what we currently use in shunting water away from a house’s foundation.
As he continued to prosper, Green saw a bright future for Rockland County and Nyack. Already, wind-driven sloops were bringing our contributions to the growing metropolis of New York – stone from Nyack’s quarries, ice from Rockland Lake, iron from the Ramapo mountains and Suffern, and what produce grew in our rocky, hilly county. Green foresaw a need to get the products to New York City faster, and became the major sponsor of the Nyack Turnpike in the 1820s, a turnpike road that would connect Nyack to Suffern directly and cut hours off the trip. Green also began to build a seaport for Nyack, and he began the first steam ferry and cargo runs from Nyack to New York City. He and his partners began construction of ‘The Orange’ (originally ‘The Nyack’) in 1826, not even 20 years from when the world’s first successful steamboat – Fulton’s ‘Cleremont’ first docked in Nyack. By 1828 ‘The Orange’ – or as some nicknamed the ungainly looking craft ‘The Pot Cheese’ was dutifully steaming back and forth to New York City daily carrying both freight and passengers. This only spurred more commerce, more boat and ship building for Nyack, our burgeoning textile industry and more. Green is truly one of the architects of the prosperity and development of Rockland County.
BUT WHY SAVE A WRECK?
Trust me when I say that as a Historian I saw the significance of John Green in Nyack and the County’s history, but as a Realtor – and a realist – I was not convinced the structure could be saved or if so, the cost could be justified. I actually rented an apartment in the house to a young lady getting government assistance in 2004, it being the only apartment in the Village her stipend could pay for. The house was in tough shape THEN. It was purchased shortly after with intentions of renovation on the new owner’s part, only to be met face on with the housing crash. The owner could not renovate and put the house on the market. I believe I may have been one of the last Realtors to show the home before it was foreclosed upon. By that time, deterioration had accelerated significantly and a portion of the north east wall was beginning to collapse into the structure, and we dared not climb the almost non-existent stairs to the third floor. Shortly thereafter, the home was condemned and labeled dangerous.
This is the picture I had in my head when some local historians and preservationists approached me as Nyack Historian and asked me to support the project. I was very reluctant to do so, because I feared the structure was too damaged to repair, or at least that such repair would be so prohibitively expensive that Nyack would wind up with another unfortunate circumstance like the old Helen Hayes Theater, which was land-marked, but could never raise enough funds to be repaired and so symbolically if not literally collapsed around itself and was lost, along with all the monies dumped into owning it and allegedly restoring the theater.
However, the folks who would become The John Green Preservation Coalition were not pie-in-the-sky dreamers, but a determined group set out to do things correctly. Structural and engineering reports, work estimates, funding needs, timetables, possible usage outlines – all were presented professionally and efficiently, and slowly but surely my mind changed, and now I became convinced that the strengthening and restoring of the property WAS possible and not at an astronomical cost. I was thrilled that this looked like a project that would save something historically significant and actually work.
Wonderful things began to happen. The Coalition was able to acquire the foreclosed property after Rick Tannenbaum, an attorney and one of the group’s leaders, completed a complicated negotiation with Ocwen Loan Servicing, an Atlanta-based mortgage company. The result was that the bank GIFTED the house to the organization. This is unprecedented. Though very rarely banks will gift a foreclosed property, those gifted properties are always to municipalities, and generally for the purposes of creating additional affordable housing. Gifting a historically significant structure to a group of preservationist just had never been done before. I will however, lay heavy bets other groups around the country will be watching us closely and will attempt similar negotiations on other significant properties that have defaulted. Not a single Nyack tax dollar was used or will be used on this project. The home is owned by the Non-Profit Coalition, not by the Village of Nyack.
Other wonderful things included support from local politicians like State Senator David Carlucci, Orangetown Supervisor Andy Stewart, Mayor Jen White and many others who it seems also found the destruction of the 1752 Lent House a wake-up call for our historic communities. Local businesses have contributed time, labor, materials, or in the case of my own company’s ‘Rand Community Fund’ made needed financial donations to the restoration. And with some melancholy, the destruction of the Lent House in a way will help preserve the John Green House. The Coalition was permitted to glean the original reddish brown sandstone blocks from the Lent House to rebuild the collapsing area of the north east wall of the John Green House. It’s almost like as it died, the Lent House gave an organ donation to save the Green House.
All this has come to pass on nothing more than the dedication and determination of this extraordinary group of historians, history buffs and history nerds who said with one voice “enough is enough, let’s do this”. Folks like Upper Nyack Village Historian Winn Perry and local contractor Ken Sharp can be seen at the house doing backbreaking labor, volunteering their time (and probably blood, sweat and tears) to keeping this House alive and present in the Nyack Community. The day the official ceremony of donation was held in front of the John Green House, I was present (as you can see in the picture below) and the mood was astonishing… such a feeling of triumph, of hope, of accomplishment glowed off these folks that it was absolutely contagious.
The John Green House is a success (knock wood) in the world of local history and preservation, a success that appears to come too infrequently recently. Tina Traster’s excellent documentary beautifully documents the lost, the saved, and those still in peril. Look for its next screening near you, and don’t hesitate – make sure you see this call to action that reminds us that Nyack and all of Rockland are really special places indeed.
If you want to get involved with the restoration, or if you want to contribute, contact: THE JOHN GREEN PRESERVATION COALITION: http://www.johngreencoalition.org/contact/ or http://www.johngreencoalition.org/donatesupport/
To watch the trailer and find out more about the film “THIS HOUSE MATTERS” by Tina Traster, go to: http://www.thishousematters.com/